Apparently, it’s the latest thing in parenting—the “parenting style du jour.” Suzanne Evans has invented Machiavellian parenting in response to her enlightened reading of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. She tells in a story published by The Wall Street Journal (The Saturday Essay, April 5, 2013) how this new technique saved her family, revealing how she was “at the end of her rope with four young kids” and learned “how hardheaded rule can secure stability and happiness in the home.” In addition to the WSJ story, Evans is the celebrated author of a new book, Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children,” published this month by Simon and Schuster/Touchstone. I’ve not yet read it, but it promises to be a bestseller.
Like Evans, I have four children, work full-time from home, and am in the process of completing a(nother) graduate degree. I’m well acquainted with the chaos that makes you wonder why on earth anyone would contemplate parenthood. I’m all for “secure stability and happiness in the home.” Of course, with my oldest two children living fairly peaceful, productive lives as college students, I may see more light at the end of the tunnel than does Evans at this point, but faith and my early-on discovery of the importance of loving discipline got me this far intact.
Having just taught a university class in business ethics to a group of graduating seniors, and having just presented Machiavelli to that class as a less-than-stellar representative of ethical thought and behavior, I was surprised to see the WSJ story in my email inbox last week. The headline, “How Machiavelli Saved My Family,” was irresistible.
Commendably, Evans applies theoretical knowledge to practical concerns. Of what value, otherwise, is theoretical knowledge? The narrative of her thought processes as she applies Machiavelli’s political maxims, one by one, to motherhood is fascinating. She tells how it helped her reestablish “hard-won dominion” in her home. Her account made me want to read other classics to gain more insight into effective parenting.
Life is interdisciplinary, after all. Knowledge is knowledge, and wisdom is wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom can be culled from just about any source and applied to just about any area of life. When my kids complained one day about my sharing with them the historical background of one of their science lessons (“Mom! That’s history, not science!”), they got “the lecture.” I let them know (in simple terms) that lines between disciplines are superficially imposed. Such lines are useful for organizing and understanding information, but not quite as useful when it comes to application.
Evans probably would acknowledge that most of the valuable parenting lessons she learned from Machiavelli aren’t necessarily new ones. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to rediscover old ideas in “new” packages (albeit The Prince was published in 1532). Old ideas in new packages stimulate new thought and action. I’m always looking for new angles on old truths.
In the WSJ version of her personal story, Evans tells how she established a family culture of discipline by setting boundaries and realistic expectations, as well as by consistently enforcing those boundaries and expectations. Nothing new there. She describes how she reinvented Machiavellian maxims, making them conducive to effective parental governance. She also reveals her interpretation of Machiavelli’s original motives, which decidedly colors her spin on those maxims.
“Machiavelli never wrote the infamous phrase often associated with him: ‘the ends justify the means,”’ she says. “His methods weren’t about acquiring power for its own sake. He saw power as a tool for securing the safety and stability of the state. He wanted to show princes how to ensure the happiness and well-being of their subjects…what he really says is subtler: that others will ultimately judge actions by results.”
She further argues, “There is nothing scheming or manipulative about following the path set down by Machiavelli. It is all about maintaining power and laying down the law with a firm hand. The great Florentine would be proud of his new disciple [i.e., Evans].”
It would be useless to argue. What do I know, really, of Machiavelli’s motives in 1532? I only know what he wrote.
It is not, therefore, necessary for a prince to have all the above-named qualities [e.g., faithfulness, integrity, loyalty], but it is very necessary to seem to have them. —The Prince, Luigi Ricci, trans.
Call me cynical, but I’m calling him cynical, which, in most dictionaries, is defined as believing that human beings are generally motivated by mutual distrust and selfish concerns. For Evans’s sake, I’ll give Machiavelli the benefit of the doubt and accept that he was at least mildly concerned with the interests and well-being of other princes and their subjects. But it’s a gift, not a hunch.
We generously, if not blindly, give politicians the the benefit of the doubt—so why not give the same benefit of the doubt to ourselves as parents? Commentators say Machiavelli’s political views have endured because the same conditions have endured that existed in Machiavelli’s time. That’s very little progress in 500 years.
You have to read Machiavelli (and Evans) for yourself. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the photo caption under a picture of Evans’s son Trevor: “Never saw through the small lie that gave his parents a much-needed retreat.” (Evans and her husband needed a break and didn’t want to fight with the kids about it, so they told them they were attending meetings (a lie) instead of attending a weekend golfing event in Santa Barbara (the truth).
“And I didn’t feel a bit guilty about it,” she wrote. “The result: When I returned home, I was well-rested and relaxed, and my kids, who had worn out their grandparents, were thrilled to have me and their dad back home. In other words: Don’t feel guilty for lying to your kids if it makes you happy and relaxed…because having a happy, relaxed mom always benefits a child.”
OK, well, Trevor didn’t see through the “small lie” that weekend. But I’m betting that someday he will, and then I suspect all hell will break loose, because most children at some point have explosive, hindsight epiphanies about how they were raised, and they’re rarely delighted to discover that their parents (and their parents’ motives) were actually more deceitful and selfish than they’d originally thought. That’s when the tables turn—and that may explain why conditions today are no different than they were in Machiavelli’s day.
Evans’s WSJ story contains some practical parenting tips and her book will no doubt bring about a new revolution in parenting that produces some positive outcomes. But, as with everything else I read, I weigh and sift, thinking as I go, identifying points of agreement and singling out points of divergence.
On at least one point I agree with Evans and Machiavelli: firm discipline is a good and useful thing.
On another point, I disagree entirely. Unlike Evans and Machiavelli, I believe that it is necessary for every parent (or prince) to actually have (or at least seek to have) all the above-named qualities—faithfulness, integrity, loyalty—and that it is not enough just to seem to have them. The proof is in a more distant end.